Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to build a society in which “all women can shine.” But as Daigo Matsui graphically shows in his new film “Japanese Girls Never Die,” women in Japan are still living in a male-dominated society that, in everything from unequal pay to blatant sexual harassment, serves as a de facto black-out curtain.
Based on a 2013 novel of the same title by Mariko Yamauchi, the film is less a didactic feminist manifesto than a fizzy mix of generational drama and dystopian fantasy, with the look and pace of a shot-on-the-fly documentary. It’s a mix Matsui also used in “Wonderful World End” (2015), a music-video-based film screened at last year’s Berlin film festival, and “Our Huff and Puff Journey” (Watashitachi no Haa Haa, 2015), a road movie with four rambunctious teen heroines.
As the English title indicates, the film’s “girls” are hardly fragile reeds. In contrast to their men, who range from the weak to the contemptible, they glow like a field of natural energy that is sometimes manically destructive and always stubbornly alive.
At the story’s center is one Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), a 27-year-old OL (office lady) at a small company in the boonies, who is living at home with her mother, father and senile grandmother. Her two bosses are a sort of manzai (comic duo) act, making a never-ending stream of wisecracks about her age, marital status and appearance. Instead of silencing them with a flame-thrower, she bears up gamely while longing to escape her miserable existence.
The second of film’s “generations” is represented by Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bubbly 20-year-old ever on the look-out for fun and excitement. She finds a dubious form of it in Yukio (singled-named Taiga), a caddish former classmate whose main interests are casual sex and, following a viewing of a documentary on street artist Banksy, graffiti. She hops into the futon with him and — together with another one-time schoolmate, the shy, drifting Manabu (Shono Hayama) — joins his tagging team. One inspiration for the artists is a missing person’s poster for the seemingly vanished Haruko, which they frantically reproduce with stencils all over town.
The third and final “generation” is that of a wild gang of teenage girls, led by the tall, sharp-eyed JK (Kanon Hanakage). For reasons undefined, they start a reign of terror against the town’s guys, jumping them as they walk alone at night. One victim is Soga (Huwie Ishizaki), a closed-mouth social recluse who is Haruka’s former classmate (the film is big on old school ties) and becomes her less-than-reliable lover.
As Haruka, Yu Aoi provides a stabilizing force for a film in constant danger of succumbing to its own giddiness. An actress and model since she was a young teen, Aoi may have a distinctive beauty (brought out sharply by the film’s stenciled poster), but she plays Haruka as isolated, uncertain and even needy. That is, she is no shining example of anything but normal human frailty.
At the same time, she exudes a certain cool (exemplified by the calm way she flicks a cigarette lighter or confidently steers her car through traffic) that helps make the film more inspirational than irritating as it winds its way to a not-so-forgone conclusion.
At the movie’s heart, though, is a mystery, at least to this observer, of the central role that joshikōsei (high school girls) have long played in Japanese popular culture, with this film being the latest example. In everything from nail art (of which Aina is a skilled practitioner) to unarmed assault, they display an energy, both creative and destructive, that puts their mostly spineless and aimless male contemporaries to shame. Where does it come from? “Japanese Girls Never Die” poses rage against the patriarchy as one answer. Women here may someday shine, but as the film so straightforwardly suggests, for the time being they burn.